Ignacio Alvarado Álvarez
On the morning of Tuesday, October 12, 2010, a detachment of eleven police officers were ambushed while patrolling a road on the outskirts of Culiacán, Sinaloa.
Eight were killed and three wounded. The next day, in the city of Chihuahua, the chief custodian of the local Cereso prison and five bodyguards were killed minutes after leaving the prison for home.
No authority has linked together both incidents, but one possible link is leading one of the branches of government to acknowledge for the first time what the federal government has consistently denied: the involvement of state sponsored paramilitary groups in the drug war.
In September, the Senate formally asked the Center for Investigation and National Security (CISEN) for detailed reports about the existence of these groups, whom it called "death squads" because it is believed they may be responsible for a large percentage of the 28,000 murders officially recognized in this war against the drug cartels, and for thousands of unsolved disappearances.
"These groups operate outside the law with the knowledge and complicity of the Mexican State," said Senator Ricardo Monreal Avila, parliamentary coordinator of the Labour Party (PT) and one of the main sponsors of the request for information from Cisen. It is thought that thousands of Army desertors, both soldiers and officers, and police officers fired for corruption make up these groups. They are "trained paramilitaries," says the Senator.
A year ago, Mauricio Fernandez, Mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia, one of the richest cities in LatinAmerica and part of the Monterrey metropolitan area, shocked the country when he announced the death of Hector Saldaña Perales, El Negro, during his inauguration speech. What is extraordinary is that the death of “El Negro”, an alleged extortionist, drug dealer and kidnapper that was devastating local wealthy entrepreneurs and citizens, was announced several hours before his body was found in Mexico City.
In the same speech, the Mayor of San Pedro announced the formation of a "grupo rudo” (tough group) that would be coordinated by his government to face major criminals such as Saldaña.
According to Monreal Avila, who was the Governor of Zacatecas between 1998 and 2004, the episode above sums up the reality of the country. "This mayor is not the only one (to employ paramilitaries). Governors employ death squads, “grupos de limpieza”, that they select and train as elite groups, and acting outside the law. Finally the Senate is recognizing their existence and we are waiting for official information. It would be Kafkaesque to say they do not exist. "
The growing number of murders, kidnappings and extortions has also led employers to recruit such groups, reiterates Monreal, who claims to have evidence that this occurs in industrialized cities in Jalisco, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila and Tamaulipas.
What makes the situation more bloody is that "organized crime or parts of it are protected" by the authorities. This evidence will be released when the federal government's version is released according to the Senator, who did not explain the reason for his decision.
Even before the Senators resorted to Cisen, civic organizations in Baja California, Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Michoacan and Guerrero have documented years of paramilitary operations.
Chronology of extermination
In the early 1990's, the lawyer Miguel Ángel García Leyva and other citizens formed in Sinaloa the Frente Contra la Impunidad (Front Against Impunity). For 10 years they gathered evidence on the activities of "death squads responsible for thousands of kidnappings and killings in the state." According to Garcia Leyva these groups are made up of police or military officials.
"The participation of these squads is public knowledge not only in Sinaloa, but throughout the country," he says. "They operate with the same uniforms, patrol vehicles, weapons, badges and radio codes, just like the forces of the state."
In 2001, Garcia changed his residence to Baja California. There, he formed the
the Asociasion Esperanza (Hope Association) with the families of missing persons. In nine years the group has documented 1,800 cases of victims, four times more than reported by the state prosecutor’s office. “All of them,” he says, “abducted by paramilitaries.”
"In Baja California these extermination groups are known as the comandos negros (black commandos), whose presence has been notorious, especially since mid-2005 to date. And there is evidence to conclude that these groups are openly assassinating people, not just “disappearing” them. There are political disappearances, disappearances with complete impunity, all the product of this failed fratricidal war," states García.
To date, no cases litigated by Asociasion Esperanza has succeeded in court. The reason, says the lawyer, is corruption. "We can’t just talk about groups of thugs, gunmen and actions by drug traffickers, this implies the involvement of the state."
To confirm this, Garcia cites research conducted between May 2008 and May 2010 on roads in northwest Mexico. They took video, photographs and gathered reports of police and military checkpoints in Nayarit, Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja California. "The results astounded us: most of the checkpoints are not only points of extortion, but points to identify and locate people to disappear, kill or threaten," says Garcia.
Extermination operations are common in each of those states but very few incidents come light.
Garcia cited another example: in August, an armed group broke into El Sasabe, an ejido in the northern Sonora border with Arizona that has become become on of the main illegal crossing points for human smuggling into the United States, and massacred 40 people.
"The silence is terrible. No one gives the real accounts of what actually happens, and if we could see the hidden figures they would reveal that more than 40,000 have been killed and not 28,000 as the government says.”
Killing cases have also been documented over many years in other states, including Chihuahua.
Between November 1995 and February 1996, the State Attorney General received complaints about the disappearance of 375 people. Witnesses said several of these abductions were carried out by men identifying themselves as federal police. In one case, the sister of two of the victims, Armando and Francisco Rayos Jaquez, obtained the license plate number of one of the vehicles used by the hijackers. It corresponded to the vehicle assigned to an official in the PGR (federal Attorney Generals Office) by the name of Arturo Chavez Chavez, President Calderon’s current Attorney General.
The remains of nine of those victims were unearthed in December 1999 on a ranch on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, known as La Campana. The rest were never found.
According to The Association of Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared, a victims advocacy group, only 37 of those cases ended in a judicial inquiry.
"What I can tell you is that in each of those cases, according to statements by the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation, federal and state policemen were involved," said Jaime Hervella, president of the advocacy group, "I do not know if there are death squads in Juarez now, I don’t have any evidence. If there are they don’t even bother to disappear you anymore, now they kill you and dump you in public.”
In 2007 approximately 300 people were murdered in Ciudad Juarez, according to data from the State Attorney General’s office. But between 2008 and up to now in 2010, the figure shot up to almost 7 thousand homicides. Of that total, more than half were gang members and juvenile offenders, According to the National Front Against Repression, another activist group, this is that more than just a war between cartels, this is “social cleansing."
In Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa similar practices have been used since the beginning of the decade, said Raymundo Ramos, director of the Center for Human Rights of Nuevo Laredo.
Gang members from both cities were turning into a serious threat to society and the government made use of armed groups to destroy them, according to reports gathered by Ramos, “here in Nuevo Laredo we have at least 15 complaints against the military for torture, rape, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. "
Corruption and impunity
What is waged in the country is not a war against organized crime but an extermination, according to Mercedes Murillo Monge, president of the Frente Civico Sinaloense.
"It is difficult to prove who controls these death squads. In fact, you can not. No one knows why they are not investigated. The level of corruption is huge and impunity is absolute. What we can say is that in this supposed drug war many innocent people have been killed by the authorities," she says.
What Murillo observes in Sinaloa is the same as other activist groups in Chihuahua, Tamaulipas and Baja California: a notable increase in the number of murders and disappearances since the beginning of anti-organized crime operations.
“To put this war into context” said Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, president of the Senate’s Human Rights Commission (and whose son, a political dissident was disappeared in the 1970’s) "it is the Ni-nis that are being disappeared, they are expendable to certain powers in the government; they are useless, so they die. After all why do we want them if they are an obstacle to a certain elite."
Ibarra, who for 35 years has reported the existence of death squads financed by the government, cited the July slaughter at the Quinta Italia in Torreón of a "gay and lesbian party" and the remains of 51 bodies “all tattooed” from a clandestine grave in the municipality of Juarez, Nuevo León to support the theory of “social cleansing.”
"Right now we can not venture to say that the Army trains or tolerates death squads, they have not yet reached that level," says Sen. Ricardo Monreal. “What is happening is that after four years we are beginning to hear voices in government and the military hierarchy saying that these tactics are wrong”